Eggs

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Eggs

The Issues

The Basics

In Canada, 98% – or 26 million – of the nation’s egg-laying chickens are kept in battery cages,1 small wire cages with slanted floors in which 5 to 7 hens remain for their entire lives.  At between one and two years of age, they are considered “spent” and are slaughtered.  Chickens can live more than ten years.

The average Canadian battery cage farm contains 17,100 birds.2

Cages

These egg-laying hens will spend their entire lives in this cage before being slaughtered at 1 or 2 years old. (Photo: Compassion Over Killing)

These egg-laying hens will spend their entire lives in this cage before being slaughtered at 1 or 2 years old. (Photo: Compassion Over Killing)

The cages are approximately 20 by 20 inches square, meaning that the birds do not even have enough room to stretch one wing. Each bird has about 1/2 square foot of space, basically about 3/4 the area of a standard piece of letter-sized paper.3 She requires 144 square inches to stretch her wings and 303 to flap them. The Recommended Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pullets, Layers and Spent Fowl, which is the standard for all Canadian egg farmers, gives each bird 67 square inches.4

Experience Life in a Virtual Battery Cage:


Death and Suffering

“When I visited a large egg layer operation and saw old hens that had reached the end of their productive life, I was horrified,”said Temple Grandin, farm animal welfare scientist. “Egg layers bred for maximum egg production and the most efficient feed conversion were nervous wrecks that had beaten off half their feathers by constant flapping against the cage.”5  They stay in these cages for anywhere from one year to a year and a half, before being classified as “spent hens”.  Some are sent to slaughter to be turned into pet food, soup, pot pies, or any low-grade meat product that hides bruising.  (Of these, many are so frail and sickly that they die during transport to the slaughterhouse.6)  The turnover rate for egg-laying hens is so high, however, that most “spent hens” are simply killed on the farm and discarded.7

In nature, hens put a great deal of effort into creating a nest for their eggs. This battery cage hen is trying to make use of the only nesting material available: the corpse of a cage-mate. (Photo: Animal Liberation Australia)

In nature, hens put a great deal of effort into creating a nest for their eggs. This battery cage hen is trying to make use of the only nesting material available: the corpse of a cage-mate. (Photo: Animal Liberation Australia)

In a particularly famous case of cruelty, 30,000 of these “spent hens” were thrown live into a wood chipper in a California farm in 2003.  County reports describe workers at the ranch “feeding squirming birds by the bucket into the pounding machine.” Though the public raised considerable outcry, the owners of the egg farm were not prosecuted by the district attorney, who described the killing of hens with a wood chipper as common industry practice.  Veterinarians involved in the case referred to it as an “approved method” of disposing of spent hens.8

 

Debeaking

Intensive confinement causes the birds to peck aggressively at the other hens in their cage. Rather than give them more space, the industry debeaks the chickens during the first days of their lives. The ends of their beaks are cut off or burned off to prevent them from attacking each other in their crowded and unnatural conditions.9 No anesthesia or painkiller is used.  This process deprives these birds of one of their most important sources of sensory input.10 It has been compared to having the ends of your fingers removed.  A debeaked bird cannot eat properly or explore her environment fully, nor can she preen herself or her flockmates.  She may also experience acute and chronic pain in her beak, head, and face.11

A debeaked hen.

A debeaked hen.

Force-moulting

To increase the laying capacity of hens who might otherwise be considered spent, the industry occasionally utilizes what is known as “force-moulting”. This practice is more common in Canada than in the United States, and involves starving chickens for up to 18 days in total darkness in an attempt to shock their body into another laying cycle. They are also not allowed any water during this period. 5 to 10% of the birds die during this period, and those that survive lose up to a quarter of their body weight.12  In nature, hens generally experience a natural molt near the beginning of winter.  They stop laying eggs and their energies are spent growing new feathers and staying warm.   Force-molting is the egg industry’s way of exploiting this process: it’s a cost-efficient way to squeeze the last few pennies out of layer hens that, at a fifth of their natural lifespan, are physically exhausted and no longer laying eggs at a profitable rate.   An account of force-molting from Cal-Maine Egg Producers:

“Our chicken houses hold 126,000 give or take a few hundred. Our molts usually last about 12 days and during the molt we lose right around 50 birds a day. The last couple of days of the molt before we feed them we lose 100 to 150. The day we feed them we lose about 200-250 hens within a few hours after we feed them. The hens tend to gorge themselves and choke on the feed as they try to eat too much too soon, or at least that’s what we believe.”

Surplus male chicks

Because these chickens are bred not for meat but for maximum egg-laying capacity, any males are surplus. They are disposed of generally through two common methods: either simply throwing them into dumpsters to starve to death, or grinding them up alive. This is the process suggested by The Recommended Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pullets, Layers and Spent Fowl. Neither option resembles anything remotely close to humane; in the first, the chicks are left to starve to death or are crushed to death under the weight of many others, and in the second: “Even after twenty seconds,” described one research scientist, “there were only partly damaged animals with whole skulls”13

Thousands of discarded male chicks in a dumpster outside a hatchery for egg-laying hens. (Photo: Farm Sanctuary)

Thousands of discarded male chicks in a dumpster outside a hatchery for egg-laying hens. (Photo: Farm Sanctuary)

Diseases and welfare

Ailments of all kinds are common among these birds. Because the battery cages are stacked row upon row, 2 to 8 cages high, chickens in lower cages are covered in the feces of those above them. Foot disorders are frequent as the birds struggle to stand on the tilted wire floors. Many chickens lose the majority of their feathers as frustration and anxiety cause them to rub against the bars of their cages; additionally, being trampled by their cagemates contributes to feather loss. Severe osteoporosis and broken bones are common, as is premature death.1415

Ammonia rising from manure piles beneath the cages causes a condition known as “ammonia burn”, a corneal ulcer that often causes blindness.16 Occasionally, birds escape through the bars of their cages and fall below them. They are trapped there in the manure piles 3 feet deep. 17

Footage taken at a veterinarian-owned battery cage farm in Guelph, Ontario showed a complete lack of concern for the welfare of the chickens. (See it here.)

The deformed foot of a battery cage hen. (Photo: Animal Place Sanctuary)

The deformed foot of a battery cage hen. (Photo: Animal Place Sanctuary)

“Government and industry are constantly reassuring consumers that things are better for farm animals here in Canada,” stated Debra Probert, executive director of the Vancouver Humane Society. “We have long suspected that’s not the case and now we have the proof. This footage shows filthy, disgusting, hideously abusive conditions.”18

“The LEL farm is not that different from other battery hen farms. Pretty much status quo,” said Stephanie Brown, a director at the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals. “Might be a tad dirtier, and the cages are old, but it’s battery-hen reality.” 19

Battery cages have aroused the ire of compassionate people worldwide. In the EU, they are being phased out in favour of “enriched cages”, which are slightly larger and allow the birds some litter in which to scratch. (While enriched cages are a minor step up from standard battery ones, scientific evidence indicates that the welfare of the chickens is still significantly compromised.20) Switzerland banned battery cages in 1992, and Germany banned them in 2007 and will have enriched cages by 2012. In 2004, the EU introduced a mandatory labelling program that identifies whether the chickens are caged, free range, raised in a barn, etcetera, but it appears that the rules are not being followed yet.21

What about organic and free-range?

“Just because it says free-range does not mean that it is welfare-friendly.”
—Dr. Charles Olentine, editor of Egg Industry magazine, an industry trade journal 22

Conditions for egg-laying hens continue to be bleak and finding out where supermarket eggs come from is a challenge.  Labels like “free range” and “free run” are not certified in any way and are sometimes the exact opposite of what they imply. The only label with any third party certification is “certified organic,” which requires that the chickens be fed an organic diet, and that they have access to the outdoors, though how much or for how long is not specified, and evidence has shown that many organic hens never get to go outside.  Mutilations like debeaking are legal, and humane slaughter and transport are not regulated. And as with conventional eggs, male chicks are considered surplus and either ground up alive or thrown into a dumpster. Learn more about organic, free-range, and free-run animal products.

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1. Canadian Federation of Humane Societies, “Battery Cages”

2. Humane Society International, “No Battery Eggs”, 2009

3. Amie Hafner, “Oral Statement by MFA investigator Amie Hafner Presented on Thursday, October 18, 2001 at the Mercy For Animals Press Conference at the Ohio Statehouse Atrium”, 2001

4. United Poultry Concerns, How Eggs Are Laid in Canada, 2006

5. Grandin, Temple, PhD, Paper presented at National Institute of Animal Agriculture, 2001 April 4

6. Montgomery, Janet, The Disposal of Heavy and Light Spent Fowl in Canada, University of Alberta, 2005 Sept. 12

7. Morrison, Blake, et. al, Old-hen meat fed to pets and schoolkids, USA Today, 2009 Dec. 16

8. Chong, Jia-Rui, Wood-chipped chickens fuel outrage, Los Angeles Times, 2003 November 22

9. ThePoultrySite.com, Unintended Consequences of Confined Animal Facilities, 2004 November

10. Philip C. Glatz, ed., Beak Trimming, 2005, p. 77

11. Philip C. Glatz, ed., Beak Trimming, 2005, p. 47

12. Farm Sanctuary, “Egg Production”, 2007

13. F. Henry, Megafarming: size brings conflict. The Plain Dealer. 1 June, 2003

14. Amie Hafner, Oral Statement by MFA investigator Amie Hafner Presented on Thursday, October 18, 2001 at the Mercy For Animals Press Conference at the Ohio Statehouse Atrium, 2001

15. Webster, A. Bruce, Commercial Egg Tip, University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, 2007 July

16. Nathan Runkle, Oral Statement by MFA Director Nathan Runkle Presented at the Mercy For Animals Press Conference, no date

17. Vancouver Humane Society, Battery Egg Farms: Alternatives, 2007

18. Ibid.

19. United Poultry Concerns, How Eggs Are Laid in Canada, 2006

20. Compassion in World Farming, No Cages for Laying Hens and Clearer Egg Labelling

21. Ibid.

22. Charles Olentine, “Welfare and the Egg Industry: The Best Defense Is an Offense,” Egg Industry, October 2002, p. 24


2 Comments

Leah Mcnish

September 19, 2017 at 6:04 pm

Hi. We are wishing to rescue 7 spent hens (battery caged). Where can we do this near Golden BC.

Thanks.
Leah

Sandra

September 22, 2017 at 9:49 am

Hi Leah, I am not familiar with any rescues near Golden. You might check with the Happy Herd https://happyherd.org/ in case they are aware of anyone. Otherwise, you may just need to contact the SPCA. They have a mandate to investigate reports of abuse. Here is the reporting information for the SPCA: http://spca.bc.ca/programs-services/cruelty-investigations/ Even if you are not sure that this situation would legally qualify as abuse, I would personally encourage reporting as I think we need to spread the awareness that the public is paying attention.

I hope it all goes well.

Regards,
Sandra Ramezani

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